from Exhibits from the American Water Museum


From an original rock painting in Topock, Arizona, now digitized on a

wall-mounted monitor:


Before this city, the Creator pressed his staff

into the earth, and the earth opened—


it wasn’t a wound, it was joy—joy!—!

Out of this opening leaped earth’s most radical bloom: our people—


we blossoms from the original body: water,

flowering and flowing until it became itself, and we, us:

                                              River. Body.




The first violence against any body of water

is to forget the name its creator first called it.

Worse: forget the bodies who spoke that name.


An American way of forgetting Natives:

Discover them with City. Crumble them by City.

Erase them into Cities named for their bones, until


you are the new Natives of your new Cities.

Let the new faucets run in celebration, in excess.

Who lies beneath streets, universities, art museums?



                                               My people!



I learn to love them from up here, through concrete.

La llorona out on the avenues crying for everyone’s

babies, for all the mothers, including River, grinded


to their knees and dust for the splendid City. Still,

we must sweep the dust, gather our own bodies like

messes of sand and memory. Who will excavate


our clodded bodies from the banks, pick embedded

stones and sticks from the raw scrapes oozing

our backs and thighs? Who will call us back


to the water, wash the dirt from our eyes and hair?

Can anybody uncrush our hands, reshape them

from clay, let us touch one another’s faces again?


Has anyone answered? We’ve been crying out

for 600 years—



                                           Tengo sed.

Dive in

1. In the first stanza, where is the speaker of the poem addressing us from?

2. What significance do you read in the line: “It wasn’t a wound, it was joy—joy!”? What contrast is set up here? And, knowing that this poem moves between references to the Dakota Access Pipeline (and protests), and the disaster in Flint, Michigan (where in an attempt to cut costs, lead was introduced into the drinking water), do you see the line above as being related to one of these sites?

3. Diaz writes that “The first violence against any body of water / is to forget the name its creator first called it.” What other violence do you read in this poem?

4. From 78. onward, the poem is mainly in three-line stanzas, save two exceptions. What do you make of these outliers in form? What effect does it have to break the form and have these lines stand alone?

5. If you were reciting this poem, where would you speak more quietly? Where do you identify a crescendo?

Writing activity

Write a poem that begins with a museum, or artifact, and that includes awareness of what lies beneath. You may choose to address environmental racism, or the ways that marginalized people suffer most from environmental degradation.

Useful links

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Bibliographical info

Natalie Diaz, Exhibits From the American Water Museum” from Postcolonial Love Poem. Copyright © 2020 by Natalie Diaz. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Graywolf Press,
Minneapolis, Minnesota, All rights reserved.

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